Some days writing saves my life, others reading does the trick and I hoard stories inked by other souls that breathe in me- the stuff of life, the wonder or heartbreak, or mystery, or rage. I sigh and sink in to ponder the degrees of separation between lives lived with fathomless individuality and yet even still, such limitations to our emotions.
The human experience is, after all, so very human.
A woman I know lost her dearest friend. She posted a picture of him, a mischievous terrier mix with a coat like sun bleached straw, one lopsided ear, and a nose lifted ever so slightly, as if he’d picked up the scent of a grand adventure or perhaps leftover meatloaf reheated in the microwave. She said goodbye because his joints had gone stiff, his eyes milky and blind. The faithful percussion of his tail drumming the floor in anticipation of her slowed to a gentle sweep and then nothing at all. The wag stilled forever. It was his time.
She wept, like her heart was broken, for surely it was. But she caught herself, realizing her grief was nothing compared to what others experience. She started to backtrack, to apologize, to shush away her pain. Silly old woman, what nonsense to fuss over an animal.
It’s not a given that suffering makes one tender or kind or empathetic. It can make you bitter and hard too. Pain may be so immense, so raw, so prolonged, that you barricade yourself inside it, clawing and swiping at anything that threatens coming near like a feral animal caged. You fear tenderness will weaken you, cost too much, leave you exposed with your belly on display. And you don’t want to be afraid anymore.
I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. I blistered and turned callous and cruel. I stockpiled bitterness as ammunition for all the ways the world had failed me. Everyone else had it better and I could tell stories to prove it.
We say pain is relative. But maybe it’d be helpful if we thought of it as related. A common wound, a tinge of realization that we’re homesick and this world aches something fierce, like shoes that haven’t been worn in yet. I don’t know if it’s because I’ll be wild and barefooted or if the shoes will be worn buttery from the journey, but I’m certain there’ll be no blisters in heaven. I’m also banking on a good God having all manner of wagging tails ready to greet us with a hearty thump thump thump.
I could tell you a bit about how I went from a bitter girl to a broken hearted woman but that’s a story for another day. For now I’ll say, to get at a caged heart, someone had to risk setting her free and that someone? He’ll carry scars from here to eternity for that mercy.
The shedding of my fragile mind and weary bone and sunken teeth, the pallor of a mortality that lingers, that’s all on its way out, my time is coming. I’ve a kingdom promised, a new life, my hope’s there with that scar-palmed Savior. But those are hard words to hold gently when you’re like me and mental illnesses siren song croons “it could all be over, just as soon as you please.” Thing is, my time’s not come yet.
I’ve still got shoes that rub and “miles to go before I sleep” so I ask, how do I live and call others to join in this living?
Well I’ll tell you, I shed a tear for a terrier mix named Pepper.
I let my uncaged soul feel the world without barriers, what Buechner calls the “beautiful and terrible things” that “will happen,” and I try not to be afraid. Grief, anger, joy, surprise, fear, loss, love… There is a commonality to what we feel, a collective emotional vocabulary that breathing in and out every day brings.
I’ve lived a different life than you, and you have me, but try telling me there’s a feeling that’s unique to you and you alone. When stuck on equivalency, we miss empathy.
In my twenties, I lost a baby. A few weeks ago, a woman lost a dog named, Pepper. That ache that something or someone is missing? That life’s not quite right and going on feels like leaving them behind, a betrayal of sorts? That torn open feeling? That’s grief.
Some might scoff that I’m comparing an eternal soul created in the image of God with a mutt with a twelve-year lifespan, but they’d be missing so many points by now, I’m not sure I could steer them back with conciliatory words so I won’t bother. Instead, I’ll say, she feels sorrow and I’ve felt sorrow and maybe we feel it together this time.
Maybe our grief is the thump thump thump of our hearts resonating, a familiar sound saying welcome home, I’m happy you’re here.
Maybe this is our humanity, the imprint of God on us, the breadth of connection?
All I know is when I’m unafraid, others expressing their pain doesn’t devalue mine, it gives us common language. May we consider many are in captivity, many oppressed, many grieving, many lonely and hurting and crying out. May we celebrate and lament unafraid of our tears and joy. May we always be kinder than necessary. May we make friends even when we’d rather not. May we weep with those who weep. No, truly, weep. May we always remember how we are common to each other and not take that for granted.
May we love the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.